Hashima is a tiny industrialised island situated off the south west coast of Japan. Once home to a thriving mining community, it is now almost completely deserted - although not quite, as the plot of the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, would have us believe.
As well as a private army of goons decked out in matching uniforms, a penchant for unnecessarily careless plan-revealing monologues and a monomaniacal desire for world domination there’s one other essential element required by every Bond villain: a secret lair. And as secret lairs go they don’t get much better than the bolthole of Raoul Silva, chief antagonist in Skyfall, the latest instalment in the Bond franchise. Where Ernst Stavro Blofeld hid out in the caldera of an extinct volcano and Hugo Drax opted for a, let’s face somewhat ostentatious, space station, Silva elected to set up home on a deserted island overrun with derelict concrete buildings.
Inspiration for the hideout comes from Hashima, a tiny industrialised island measuring just 480 metres long and 160 metres wide situated off the south west coast of Japan. Now deserted, it was once home to a thriving mining community. Thanks to the large sea defences and intimidating militaryesque silhouette, the island frequently draws comparisons to Alcatraz. In fact so uninviting are the crumbling grey structures of Hashima they make its blonde, sun streaked Californian cousin look less like an impenetrable prison and more like a holiday resort. In other words it’s just the sort of place where an uber-villain might want to situate their hideout.
Visitors to Hashima, both those arriving on the regularly scheduled boat tours as well as the urban explorers who risk serious injury thanks to the rapidly deteriorating structures, are greeted by scenes reminiscent of those found in a work of dystopian fiction. Buildings’ facades are peeling off thanks to the action of the blazing sun and blasting winds, whole sections of walls have long since crumbled and fallen, windows nothing more than jagged assemblages of shattered glass. All that remains of the many residential buildings are vast skeletal remains that somewhat poignantly recall the devastation wrecked by the US military’s Fat Man when he was unleashed on Nagasaki, the island’s closest mainland city.
A mishmash of detritus and miscellany such as discarded footwear, children’s toys and ancient television sets lay scattered amongst the rubble, remaining where they were left following the island’s desertion forty years ago. There’s something about the derelict, empty buildings that elicits an odd kind of pathos – the island itself seems desperately lonely, dishevelled and unloved. But amongst the forgotten ephemera and crumbling masonry is a fascinating story that’s closely linked to the birth of modern industry, architecture and structural engineering in Japan.
Coal was first mined on the island in 1887 when the Fukahori family installed a single shaft. Three years later the now famous Mitsubishi Corporation bought it from the Fukahori’s for 100,000 yen. In 1895 the company sunk a 200-metre shaft intending to tap the coal resources lying beneath the seabed followed by another in 1898. Benefitting from the drive for modernisation following the Meiji restoration and Japanese victories in the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese war, the island quickly grew into a sizable community. Slag recovered from the mines was used as part of a land reclamation program creating space for the processing plants and residential buildings.
By 1916 Hashima was producing 150,000 tons of coal a year and was home to more than 3,000 miners. Thanks to the lack of living space and the rapidly expanding workforce, Mitsubishi built the first sizable reinforced concrete residential building in Japan, Glover House. This was just 14 years after America's first large-scale concrete structure, the Ingalls Office Building, was built in Cincinnati. Glover House was a boxy six-storey apartment block that was vaguely reminiscent of the brutalist designs of British architect Denys Lasdun.
Living conditions in the block were Spartan. Each apartment consisted of a single six-tatami mat room (about 10 square meters) and a small Japanese genkan entrance vestibule. Bathroom and kitchen facilities were all communal. Two years later the company erected a nine-storey residential block in the island’s centre. Consisting of long, straight main section with three wings stretching out like the tines on a fork, this was at the time of construction the tallest building in Japan. Building continued on the island until it housed more than 30 concrete apartment blocks, 25 shops, two swimming pools, a barbers, a school, a hospital, a post office and even a Shinto shrine. The island’s unusual, industrial appearance led locals to colloquially refer to it as Gunkanjima (Battleship Island) due to its resemblance to a hulking military vessel.
Thanks to the island’s proximity to the mainland the shipment of supplies was never really a problem. Initially distilled sea water was brought to the island in water supply ships and then stored in an elevated water tank. This was then distributed to communal water hydrants located throughout the island. In 1957 an underwater pipe from nearby Sanwamachi was laid in leading to the lifting of water rations for the first time in the island’s history. Around this time use of propane was also introduced replacing the use of coal for fuel and heating. During its heyday the island was the most densely populated place on the planet. In 1959 the population density was 83,500 people per square kilometre for the island as a whole and 139,100 per square kilometre for the residential district, the highest ever recorded. The effect of the cramped conditions and on the island’s inhabitants can only be guessed.
Thanks in part to the increased demand for coal fuelled by Japanese involvement in the Second World War the island reached a peak production of 410,000 tons in 1941. But as petroleum became a more desirable fuel than coal throughout the 1960s the mine’s output dwindled. Eventually, in January 1974, Mitsubishi officially announced the mine’s closure. Three months later the island was deserted.
In 2008, the Japanese authorities decided that Hashima was to be put on the interim list to potentially become a UNESCO World Heritage Site though no firm decisions have been made since. But whatever the future holds, it remains a unique, if distinctly eerie, record of a country’s rapid industrialisation.